In the last couple of weeks Tom Christensen of State, Steve Young of our own American Institute in Taiwan (AIT; the officially unofficial US representative organ here), and now Raymond Burghhardt, Chairman of AIT, have told Taiwan the DPP UN referendum is a bad idea. Ralph Jennings of Reuters has the call:

The United States on Tuesday criticized Taiwan’s plan to hold a referendum on U.N. membership repeating its line that it would upset the status quo with neighbor China which considers the self-ruled island its own.

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party plans to hold the referendum alongside presidential elections in March, ignoring warnings from Washington and Beijing.

“Just the process of having a referendum will make it harder to develop relations across the Taiwan Strait,” Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the U.S. government’s American Institute in Taiwan, told a news conference.

“It isn’t going to accomplish anything in changing Taiwan’s international status.”

The United States is Taiwan’s biggest ally and the institute is its de facto embassy.

Burghhardt is entirely correct: the referendum won’t change Taiwan’s international status — because China has a veto in the UN. Since it can’t change Taiwan’s status, why have a succession of US officials criticized it? US officials certainly must be aware that by hacking on the DPP referendum, they are in effect (1) running interference for Beijing, saving it from playing the heavy and affecting the election; and, (2) making election points for Ma Ying-jeou. I can’t help but add that while the US calls press conferences of Taiwan media reps to object to the DPP’s referendum as “altering the status quo” it says nothing about Chinese missiles. The Status Quo in US hands is just a club to beat Taipei with……

Burghardt also added that the referendum will make it harder to develop relations across the Taiwan Strait. AIT’s history is a bit thin, there. Chen has made repeated overtures to China, but China has repeatedly indicated it will not talk to the DPP. The relations problem is not a Taiwan problem, and the State Department is talking to the wrong side. Just look at all the neighboring nations China has friendly relations with……China is not a normal country — it has no friends.

It should also be noted that the whole relations issue is very narrowly construed. As far as I can see Taiwan has very good relations with China — $100-150 billion in investment and a million of its citizens are relating there even as we speak. If China was really concerned about the referendum, we’d see concrete action on its part against Taiwanese interests there — but not a peep is heard. Thousands of Taiwanese enter and leave China on a daily basis, and a flourishing underground banking system takes their cash to and from the Communist state, and not a sou or soul is molested. Instead of concrete action on its own behalf, which might be costly in terms of investment and political backlash, China has the US running interference for it. This enables Beijing to intervene in the island’s election at no cost to itself. Instead of concrete action, what we hear are throaty complaints, whose main purpose is to sway media discourse and keep the Bush Administration in line. Instead of China taking the hit, the US-Taiwan relationship bears the cost of this misguided policy. This is what Beijing defines as a win-win situation — it wins coming and going…..

I think maybe the DPP ought to figure out a way to incorporate the US campaign against the referendum as a positive point in its election appeal — “Hey folks! With one vote you can give the raised middle finger to both Beijing and Washington!”